What Sports Can Teach

People often tout such things as “teamwork” and “sacrificing the individual for the greater good” and “overcoming adversity” as benefits of playing sports.  Like bad tasting medicine, the things that sports can teach you are often portrayed as something to be endured on the path to learning some tough lessons.

There are other, less painful things that sports (and a good coach) can teach.

The first of these is Focus.

Focus is an interesting subject.  It involves something called attentional field.  Attentional field is made up of everything on which you could focus.  Attentional field includes all those things that are subjective, inside of you, such as thoughts, emotions, and physical responses, plus those things that are objective, outside of you, including sights and sounds.  Focus is the ability to attend to internal and external cues in your attentional field (see here for details.) Focus is not just something that you have or do not have, it is something which can be taught, developed, and nurtured. Focus, or attention, can be subjective (internal) or objective (external) or a blend of both. A good coach will recognize the particular type of focus best suited to each individual athlete she or he coaches.

We have all seen coaches who, after an athlete has made a mistake, refocus that athlete on what is coming up, not allowing the athlete to be defeated by the mistake but rather to intensify their efforts towards what comes next. For other athletes, the reverse is needed. After they do something, good of bad, they need to be directed back to it to review it and to internalize the lesson which can be learned from it.

For some athletes it’s internal focus and for some it’s external focus.  A good coach can nurture either.

Whether internal focus or external focus, the focus must be tuned toward what needs to be done in any given situation.

Some time ago, I was watching on during a session at the Michael Jordan Flight School camp in which campers picked at random were given the opportunity to win a pair of Air Jordans by sinking a free throw in front of the whole crowd of campers and onlookers with the condition that if they missed the free throw they had to do some number of push-ups.  For most of the young kids, it was a daunting pressure-packed free throw.  One camper, however, displayed a bit of cockiness and upped the ante.  Make the shot and his whole team would win a pair of shoes.  Michael responded without missing a beat, “And if you miss, the whole team does push-ups.”  The camper, after first checking with his teammates, agreed.  Before shooting the free-throw, he confirmed with MJ the terms, “The whole team gets shoes.”  And MJ confirmed, “Or the whole team does push-ups.”

The young man missed the free-throw, which provided Michael the opportunity for a teaching point.  “You missed the free-throw because you were focused on the reward and the consequence.  You should have focused on your shot.”

Preparation is the second thing sports can teach us. Preparation serves as a strong aid in developing focus.

Preparation, though, is not simply creating a script to follow come game time. It is the actual process of getting ready that prepares more than any tangible plan that might come from that preparation. As Eisenhower once said “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Or, as someone once told me, “A well-prepared person expects nothing and is prepared for anything.”

As one advances to new skill levels and moves through higher and higher arenas of competition, one spends more time, proportionally, preparing than performing. This holds true as one progresses from youth sports to high school sports and on to the collegiate level. Finally, at the highest levels of competition, the amount of time spent in preparation grows to hours for each minute of game time. This is something lost on most fans. All of this preparation feeds the athlete’s ability to focus and provides the confidence needed to succeed.

Focus and preparation would be meaningless, however, without Purpose.  Purpose engenders the motivation to focus and to prepare, not just in the larger sense of purpose, on the grand scale, but also in all those day to day situations.  Life, in general and the season as a whole are not the only things that demand purpose, but each practice and each workout along the way do, too.  When asked, with all that he had accomplished in his career, what more did he still wish to accomplish, Hall of Fame bound coach Bill Belichick replied “I’d like to go out and have a good practice today. That would be at the top of the list right now.”

Which is why he is headed for the Hall of Fame.

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